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The Festival So Secret, You Don't Even Know The Lineup

Secret Garden festival is "put on by mates, for mates".

11/11/2016 9:14 AM AEDT | Updated 11/11/2016 9:14 AM AEDT
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The garden part of Secret Garden.

The usual marketing logic of music festivals is to rely on the artist lineup to sell tickets. The side attractions, art installations, interesting features, food and the rest are usually only mentioned in passing. It's not too often a festival keeps its lineup secret; even more rare that every ticket is sold before organisers even begin thinking about releasing the lineup.

But that's what sets Secret Garden apart. Well, that and the costumes, the kissing booths, the incredible art, the picturesque (nearly rural) location, and the fact they donate the profits to charity.

It is an odd beast, but one that has recently put on big drawcards like Matt Corby, Gang of Youths, Hayden James, Parquet Courts and Raury on their secret lineups.

"We are a festival put on by mates, for mates," explains festival director Clare Downes very simply.

"That is such an important part of Secret Garden; everything we do is very genuine. We're not manufacturing a version of fun, we're just putting on exactly what we think is fun."

Anna Warr

The festival -- which happens at Downes' family farm at Brownlow Hill, just outside of Camden and about an hour and a half from the Sydney CBD -- has been running for a few years now. They do things a little differently to most of their competitors. They eschew the massive corporate sponsorships, the big branded booze bars and the enormous infrastructure of other festivals; in its place, they bring guests into their "forest maze" for a weekend of weirdness, of art and music and theatre and simply having a good time. Ticket profits go to Oxfam, the Girls & Boys Brigade and other worthy causes. Dressing up in outlandish costumes is more than encouraged.

"We want to create a world of discovery and humour and play. From that, when you talk about vibe, the vibe is amazing. Everybody is on the most fun, crazy 48-hour adventure. The spirits are so high. There's so much play and being silly. People's guards are down, there's nothing to prove; you can't be arrogant in a banana costume," Downes laughed.

"From that kind of programming, the atmosphere of the festival falls out of that. We want a really fun and playful and kind environment."

Watching that video, you might be surprised at the lack of -- you know -- music being featured in a video about a music festival. It's Secret Garden policy to not even release the lineup until every ticket has sold out. They sell out every year, usually months in advance of their February weekend date. It's a deliberate strategy.

"The reason we do that is so people are loyal to the festival, not the lineup. That way, their intentions for coming are really different; you're not just looking at a program and running around checking off all the bands. People get more open to the whole Secret Garden experience," Downes said.

"We place as much emphasis on the bands as the dancers, games, the art, all that working together with the food and the booze. That's all on equal par in our minds."

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In 2016, the festival spruiked a "psychedelic disco", mock marriage ceremonies, a human foosball game, an "applause arena", sumo suits, a "mystic doctor", a rave cave and stacks more. It's a little different to your Big Day Out-style mega festivals.

"One of the breakthrough moments in my career, one year I said to my chainsaw-wielding little brother 'can you make a kissing booth'. It was a little thing in the bushes with a menu board with what kind of kisses you can get, and we just waited to see what happens. It was punter-run. Sure enough, the kissing booth was popular the entire time, 48 hours of punters running the booth or lining up, everybody got a kiss, boy or girl, acted like whatever or looked like whatever," Downes said.

"It made us realise how awesome our audience is. When people's guards are let down that much, they're not worried about being made to feel foolish. The more silly you are, the more welcome you are -- the way you dance, the way you dress, if you're a slow runner but you go in the egg and spoon race, everybody can act anyway they like."

She stops and thinks for a moment.

"...Unless they're a dickhead. We judge them pretty hard."

Secret Garden is on February 24 and 25. See their website for more info, and check out more pics in the slideshow below.

Secret Garden festival

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